Dynastic succession is not the only means of attaining power in India. As the rise of Sasikala Natarajan in the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu shows, being the companion of a leader revered by the party is another route.
Jayalalithaa, too, followed this pattern. When her mentor M.G. Ramachandran died in 1987, his widow, Janaki, assumed his mantle and became Chief Minister, but for a mere 24 days. Following an electoral defeat of her breakaway faction of the AIADMK in 1989, she had no option but to step aside, as MGR’s co-star in the film world and longstanding companion, Jayalalithaa, took the reins of a reunited party in her hands.
This line of non-dynastic ascent to power is different from the one which is becoming the norm elsewhere. There are a number of parties where political power has been passing from father or husband to the wife or the widow and then to the children.
The 132-year-old Congress is the most notable among them. In the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, his widow Sonia inherited his mantle (after a brief interregnum when Sitaram Kesri was the party president) and is now expected to bestow the organisational position on her son, Rahul.
Similarly, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar has seen its leader, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s wife, Rabri Devi, become Chief Minister after him. Now, it is their sons who are ministers in the state.
In the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Chief Minister’s position has become a matter of family lineage as also in the Akali Dal in Punjab where the family of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal holds sway.
In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik is a former Chief Minister’s son. The father-to-son passing of the baton has also been seen in the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir.
If the AIADMK is proving to be somewhat different, the reason is that neither MGR nor Jayalalithaa had any children.
But Sasikala’s rise has shown that proximity to the leader may provide an equally potent claim for inheritance, at least to the ambitious.
However, it is not an entitlement which is as secure as that of a family member. The difficulties which Jayalalithaa experienced in this respect could only be removed by her electoral victory at Janaki’s expense.
It is after all the voters who have the final say in a democracy and in 1989 it used to be said that they chose the mistress instead of the widow.
There is little doubt that Sasikala, too, will have to wait for the imprimatur of the electorate to confirm her legitimacy as a successor.
But, irrespective of whether she wins an election or not, it is obvious that her uphill political journey will be far more arduous than Jayalalithaa’s.
For starters, she doesn’t have the latter’s charisma or the kind of political experience which Jayalalithaa gained through years of tutelage under MGR. Instead, Sasikala comes across as a reclusive, dour personality.
It is noteworthy that ever since MGR broke away from the DMK and constituted the AIADMK in 1972, the party has thrived solely on the basis of the popular appeal of its leaders — both MGR and Jayalalithaa.
If Janaki failed in her political career, it was because of the absence of the kind of popularity enjoyed by her husband and later by Jayalalithaa.
In this respect, the personality-oriented AIADMK is different from a cadre-based party like the DMK. This is the reason why the DMK was able to survive the rift at the top between two of M. Karunanidhi’s sons, and the advanced age of the leader himself, to win 89 seats in the 234-member assembly in the last election with 31.6 per cent of the votes, only nine per cent short of the AIADMK’s vote share.
As for Sasikala, another disadvantage besides her lack of charisma is the “baggage” of a family. Moreover, she and her relatives are still under the cloud of malfeasance.
It has to be remembered that despite her closeness to Jayalalithaa, the latter evicted her for a while from her Poes Garden residence following charges that Sasikala’s family had used her proximity to the former Chief Minister to make financial gains.
For the present, the AIADMK members may have anointed her as the party chief out of deference to their former leader’s memory.
But politics is a cruel game. If Sasikala stumbles, either because of her inability to attract crowds or a failure to demonstrate organisational skills, she may not last for long at the top.
Even if the transfer of power from Jayalalithaa to O. Panneerselvam has been an uneventful one, the AIADMK is evidently entering a rocky phase because of the uncertainty about Sasikala’s role and about her equations with the Chief Minister and other senior AIADMK members.
For this reason, there is an element of fin de siècle or the end of an era in Tamil Nadu politics, where the period of regional supremacy which began with the Congress defeat in 1967 has suffered a jolt if only because the Dravidian parties, which dominated the scene for the last half a century, are no longer quite what they were.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)